I don’t know how the news of Steve Sabol’s death is traveling outside Philadelphia where chatter on sports-talk radio this morning was all about Sabol’s work in taking the National Football League from a sport like professional hockey into the prime-time attraction that it is today. But word of his death did register with me since Sabol was one of my few brushes with greatness.
Back in my junior year at Woodrow Wilson High, one of my history teachers, obviously looking for a day off without having to call in sick, had Sabol come to campus and speak to various classes. At the time NFL Films was still a relatively new venture, but it was largely responsible for that collection of highlight footage that ESPN would take over. It is an indication of how small-time the effort was that Sabol would mix with ne’er do well youths in Lower Bucks County. But by mythologizing the sport — Sabol played football at Colorado State while majoring in art history — he helped turn the NFL into the corporate behemoth it now is. I wonder if he had regrets.
Fast forward five years. During my junior and senior years at Temple, while studying film — does “the cinema” sound less dilettantish? — I worked for Steve Sabol. At their center city facility in Philadelphia, I mixed chemicals for the film processors between midnight and 8:00 so that the writers and editors could prepare those highlight reels that Howard Cosell announced. Of course, the real voice of NFL Films was John Facenda, the television news anchor for Channel 10 in Philadelphia. Later Sabol would use other Philadelphia voices, like Harry Kalas.
Segments from old soundtracks prompted me to buy one of the cd’s with the remarkably good music that turned football into art. (If readers want proof that my better half doesn’t read Old Life, admission of on-line purchases has to be it.) Folks born after 1970 can likely not imagine a time when professional football was almost as beautiful as it was modest. The irony is that Steve Sabol may have been so accomplished at his craft that he helped turn the NFL into something almost unwatchable (not to mention those vexing violations of the Lord’s Day).